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Is it time to define an Australian cuisine?

To your right, the Manly ferry chugs past the white sails of the world’s most famous opera house. To your left, the Sydney Harbour Bridge feels so close you could reach out and climb it. In front of you sit a glass of chilled riesling and a colourful posy of preserved wild cherries, albino and Chioggia beetroots, paper-thin radish, and a scattering of deep blue violets. Welcome to the lucky country.

But it’s not just opera houses, sunshine and beautiful harbours that make dining in Australia different from the rest of the world.

For Peter Gilmore, chef at Sydney’s Quay, which provided the idyllic setting above, it’s an open mind and the freedom to explore the possibilities of many different food cultures and traditions that sets dining in Australia apart. “Along with the incredible array of raw natural ingredients, this gives us so many different possibilities it makes our cuisine hard to define,” he says. “But it’s evolving in different and equally exciting directions.”

Neil Perry of Sydney’s much-loved Rockpool restaurant argues that Australia’s multicultural nature and proximity to Asia are key points in the evolution of a unique Australian cuisine. “I don’t think any other country blends Asian ingredients and craft into their food as well as we do,” he says, as he prepares his signature chirashi zushi of raw squid, tuna and Murray cod on a pearl meat shell. “We are so close to Asia, and so much of our population is of Asian heritage. When you mix all that knowledge, ingredient and intent; it isn’t Asian fusion, it’s a naturally occurring pheromone.”

This naturally occurring “pheromone” of modern Asian-Australian food isn't limited to Sydney. There's Andrew McConnell’s deftly worked Szechwan lamb with roti bread and mossy coriander sauce at his new Supernormal Canteen in Melbourne, and the cheeky jungle curry of Moreton Bay bug (slipper lobster) at Melbourne’s loud, fun and spicy Chin Chin, or the slow-cooked wagyu beef curry at Lanterne Rooms in Canberra. It’s Asian, yes, but it’s lighter, fresher and more fun.

“We’re cheeky,” says food writer Jill Dupleix. Without the weight of a massive population and long history bearing down upon us, she says, we’re free to experiment and eat what we like. “The rest of the world still thinks we’re doing East meets West, or Pacific Rim, but we’re not. We’re doing Australian food, cooked by Australians, for Australians.”

Pat Nourse, restaurant editor of Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine, believes Australian restaurants are different, because Australians are different. “We live on the driest continent on Earth, most of us on the coastline, so we like to eat outside a lot and we eat a lot of seafood,” he says. “And we don’t mind doing that with a cold drink in hand.” 

For Chinese-Australian chef Kylie Kwong, it’s what Australians bring to the table that counts. “We are generally very relaxed and easygoing characters,” she says. “Our food reflects this – it’s fresh, light and flavoursome. It’s a generous culture, a ‘feel-good’ culture based on a natural openness and honesty.”

At Billy Kwong, she has created an original cuisine combining her Chinese heritage and hand-foraged indigenous ingredients, such as crispy-skin duck with Davidson's plums and lemon aspens, and steamed saltbush leaf dumplings. “The commitment and dedication of our primary producers is truly inspirational,” she says. “I really believe this is a very important aspect as to why our restaurants and food culture are so excellent.”

Source:  The Age - 13 May 2014